Well RED Scottish Teenagers

RED Award LogoIt’s an award ceremony, but not as we know it. ‘Strangled Silence’ had made the shortlist, so I flew over to Edinburgh on Tuesday, and attended the ‘ceremony’, which started at about 10.30 on Wednesday morning in Falkirk Town Hall. It began with all of the shortlisted authors being interviewed by some of the students. Apart from myself there was:

  • Jimmy Docherty for ‘The Ice Cream Con’
  • Keith Gray for ‘Ostrich Boys’
  • Sophie McKenzie for ‘Blood Ties’
  • Linda Strachan for ‘Spider’

We were probed with searching questions, first for print publications, then for student radio – the unfortunate guy recording my interview pressed the wrong button on the recorder and we had to do it all again (don’t worry mate, it happens to the best of us). After the interviews, we were released and herded toward the theatre, walking on with big announcements as if we were coming out onto the ‘X Factor’ stage.

Heart-Shaped SunglassesWe were apparently supposed to wear some kind of red accessory, but I hadn’t been told, so I had to borrow a pair of enormous red plastic love-heart-shaped sunglasses to walk on with. I looked like a badly-prepared Elton John impersonator.

Then we just took our seats and watched for the first half of the event.

It started with an award for the best book review by one of the students. Then, each book was represented on stage by a school that did a short piece of drama, using a Powerpoint screen as a backdrop. Ten schools, five books, so there were two plays for each book.

A note to anyone using Powerpoint – particularly when you’re using it on gear that isn’t yours, or you’re linking your laptop to someone else’s projector. Don’t trust Powerpoint presentations. Don’t count on them to work when you most need them. Expect something to go wrong and have a Plan B. This system is not to be trusted. If seen on the street, do not approach it, as it may be violently unstable. Contact your local authorities and just walk away.

As you can imagine, there were varying degrees of success with these mini-plays, but overall, they were very ENTERTAINING. Sound like an awards ceremony to you? Yvonne Manning, the librarian who heads the organization (and loaned me the ridiculous glasses), made for a great MC, at one point pausing to model her very unorthodox pair of tights (though she maintained it wasn’t a ‘pair’ at all).

All the guests were taken to the cafe for lunch. The kids were fed too, and while we were gone, they did a quiz based on our books.

After lunch, all the authors sat at tables to sign books and autographs. It was at this point, we were struck by the full range of red accessorizing, including face-paint, daft hats, armbands,  striped leggings and hair extensions. One girl wore a red tutu and glittery cowboy hat. When we came back to the theatre, there was a prize for the best red accessory (the tutu won). Then each author was introduced by one of the students, and we spoke for a few minutes each.

It was interesting, listening to all these writers speak, to note how well they spoke. It really is becoming an absolutely essential part of the job. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is open to debate.

RED Shortlist Authors 2010That’s us all there in the picture. I’m at the back with Jimmy. The guy in the middle, embracing the two women, is Keith. You have to keep a close eye on those Nuthern Inglish lads. Sophie’s on the left and Linda’s on the right. After our talks, we all took questions together. Though I should point out there were two sofas, we didn’t have to huddle together the whole time.

After a couple more short speeches, Pat, a very friendly, enthusiastic man in town official’s attire (he looked like a cross between a court judge and Santa Claus) introduced the kids who announced the winner.

And the prize went to . . . hang on, having trouble with the envelope here . . . yes, it’s . . . oh! It’s Sophie McKenzie!

Congrats to Sophie, and thanks to the kids and all the welcoming and hard-working organizers for a very fresh and entertaining event. Long may it continue.

The following day found me in Inveralmond College in Livingston and then Armadale Academy. Some of the schools in Scotland are HUGE. I do have fears that Britain is beginning to take the retail park approach to education – I think some of them are only slightly smaller than Edinburgh Airport, and a few might be mistaken for Ikea stores. But I am pleased to say that I found the libraries in these two schools well stocked – and not just with computers – and their staff motivated. The general librarianish ethic remains intact. I had a good time at both, and thanks to all the staff there.

Then I came back to Ireland, where we have bugger all school libraries and where full-time school librarians are as rare as pandas – and not just through destruction of their environment. It’s good to be home.

Showing Signs of Stross

Charles Stross is one of the UK’s leading sci-fi writers, and is also a major computer fanatic (the two often come together). A recent post on his blog talks about the difficulties of making money by publishing online. Halting State CoverThere has been a deluge of feedback, leading to a very interesting discussion about where digital publishing could be going and how us poor hacks are ever supposed to make any money out of it.

In his post, he outlines the problems newspapers have faced and how book publishers – and writers – are now hitting the same wall.

As well as being the type of guy who writes (and talks) with informed passion about anything that lights his fire – especially books – Charles has worked as a tech reviewer for various publications. So he knows his stuff, and his fan-base is littered with like-minded people. If you’re interested in digital publishing, this discussion is a must-read.

Scottish Serendipity

So I’m off to Scotland tomorrow. ‘Strangled Silence’ has been shortlisted for the RED Award and I’m heading over for the ceremony in Falkirk (about halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh). Strangled Silence CoverThis will be no ordinary event, what with Powerpoint presentations, drama, question-and-answer sessions, a full meal as well as all the usual speeches and talks. Sounds like the Scottish take the same approach to awards ceremonies as they to cooking, hillwalking, ‘fitball’ and music. If it’s not tough on the intended recipient, it’s not worth doing. The event starts in the morning and goes on after lunch.

I’ll also be doing a couple of sessions while I’m over there, in Livingston and Armadale. I’m looking forward to it. After my week’s tour in Scotland last year, with the Scottish Book Trust, I expect it to be great craic.

I’ve written a guest blog for the Scottish Book Trust’s website, about the awards and what’s going on. You can read it here.

Evil Eye Audiobook CoverCoincidentally, I received my author copy of the audiobook version of ‘The Evil Eye’ today. It was originally published by Scottish publisher, Barrington Stoke. They’ve got together with Oakhill Publishing to produce a pack that includes both the book and a CD with an actor reading the text. Part of their ‘Read Hear’ series, the book is aimed at ‘reluctant’ readers, but I figure if it’s going to appeal to them, it’s got to appeal to anyone looking for a gripping, moody, meaty and (slightly) violent story.

I have visions of teenage boys glaring suspiciously at the blurb and asking that all important question ‘How many killin’s?’

‘The Goblin of Tara’ got the same audio treatment last year and I was delighted with the results, even if it was weird to hear my story read in someone else’s voice (it sounds strange enough in mine). These were two of my favourite books to illustrate as well, as I took the opportunity to get down to some nice, gritty atmospheric action shots. If you like Celtic warriors, battles, monsters and a bit of gore, these books should be up your street. And now you can listen to them too.

I also signed the contract with W.F. Howes (Clipper Audiobooks) today for an audio version of ‘Strangled Silence’ too – the book that’s up for the award on Wednesday. Funny how things connect up like that.

Snap, Crackle and Pop into Hughes & Hughes

Rice Krispies Box FrontThis is a first for me. One of my books is now available in your local shop or supermarket – in the breakfast cereal section. With boxes of Rice Krispies. ‘Mad Grandad and the Mutant River’ is part of a promotion from Kelloggs, along with Hughes & Hughes bookshops and the O’Brien Press, to sell cereal and reading material in one box.

These are the other books you can get with the Rice Krispies tokens. They are all worth checking out:

It is a strange experience to see one of my books on the front of a cereal packet. It brings back memories of competing with my brothers and sisters when we were kids, searching for whatever plastic toy was to be found in the bag of cereal. I think we only sent off tokens a couple of times, but there was always that excitement as we waited for the parcel in the post.Mutant River Cover

If you want to get hold of any of these books, you can collect the tokens from the packets and send them off in the time-honoured way. Or you can take the tokens to your nearest Hughes & Hughes and pick up your books directly from the shop. Me, I’d prefer to go to the bookshop. That said, it takes some serious will power for me to walk out of a bookshop without buying something. But there are so many good books and so little time (and so little shelf space in my crammed house).

We’ll be doing big promotional sessions in the shops in Dun Laoghaire and St. Stephen’s Green next month. Check with the shops for details.

It’s funny, but giving books away with cereal seems to be big news. Word has even reached as far away as Los Angeles. I know Kelloggs make a big thing about how loud Rice Krispies are, but that’s ridiculous.

Death of a Sales Outlet

I was reading Eoin Purcell’s post on the problem bookshops are faced with as they lose more and more customers to online booksellers, both for print and digital books. Actually, he was passing on a point made by another blogger, Seth Godin (Is this all we do in blogs now – talk about other people’s blogs?), but it amounts to the same thing.

The point was that bookshops are losing the biggest book-buyers to the online retailers. And that’s the core of their business, right there. The comparisonHodges Figgis Window was made with music shops, which have been crippled by online sales.

I’ve written about this issue before, both in this blog and in a few different articles and talks. I think that bookshops (as well as publishers, writers and illustrators) are facing a steep learning curve. We need to learn how the nature of reading is changing, in order to understand how the market for reading material is changing. My mother-in-law bought a Sony Reader for my father-in-law for Christmas. I had to help them set it up. It was a PRS 600, one of those with the touch-screen. My parents-in-law were busy discussing how different it would be to read books on it, the advantages and disadvantages.

But they were still talking purely in terms of books. I don’t think the future of eReaders lies in offering a new way of reading books. Nor do I think that the future of books is necessarily in eReaders, or that technology is going to render print obsolete. The beauty of reading on a digital device is not that you can carry loads of books around with you, or change the size of the type, or even cross-reference stuff. These are merely convenient, offset by the fact that an eReader needs power to work – power that runs out (and why, oh why, can’t you use a Sony Reader while it’s plugged in?). The beauty of digital devices is to be found in things like the iPhone, where you can read every kind of material on the one device, plus do a range of other things as well. The Swiss army knife of the digital world. It doesn’t do any one thing brilliantly, but it does loads of things well.

The iPhone doesn’t offer all the solutions either – it’s not pleasant for reading off for any length of time. But given the way we now read on the web, the text on phones, we read newspapers, magazines, books, the documents we create ourselves and all sorts of other media – we need a means of organizing it and unifying the delivery system.Digital Publishing Cartoon

I’ll never give up reading off paper;  I just love it too much. But if someone offers me a cheap and comfortable means of accessing all the other things I read in my life – including a place to access and read my own documents easily – I’ll jump at it. And so will most other people. If bookshops want to stay in business, they are going to have to change form. Loads of printed material on shelves can only be one aspect of their business.

Can they still operate on the high street, with all the related costs, and compete with Amazon? No. They need to become something more, something else.

I think libraries offer a pretty good model, but taking that high street space and making it more social, more service-oriented, more informative, isn’t enough. Perhaps giving it a more commercial twist might produce something libraries don’t or can’t offer. All of us in the book industry are going to have to change the way we think, but first to be affected will be the bookshops. They need to become people places again, rather than just big brand locations for displaying stock. That’s my thought for the day.

Walking In The Air

So, before Christmas, we took the kids to the National Concert Hall to see ‘The Snowman’. It was a great show, with the half-hour film as the main event, but also featuring the Spotlight Stage School doing some excellent renditions of Disney tunes – although there were a few strange choices, given the range they had to choose from. There was also some carol singing (including a couple where the audience had to do the singing in true karaoke style) and a flying – or rather ‘cycling’ – visit from Santa Claus.Snowman-Raymond Briggs

Watching the film again after all those years, I was struck not only by Raymond Briggs’ lovely story, but also the gorgeous animation, directed by Dianne Jackson. In these days of computer-generated animation, it’s hard to appreciate just how challenging a film like that would be to make. The sheer drawing technique involved in the flowing backgrounds, changing perspectives and the naturalistic rendering took my breath away when I first saw ‘The Snowman’ onscreen.

Seeing the film again, this time accompanied by the live orchestra, brought it to life once more. It was a joy to witness. Briggs’ work and the characters he creates have always had a piercing simplicity. If you ever want to see a funnier, but far more haunting example of his work adapted for film, you should check out ‘When the Wind Blows’. Storytelling at its best, but Disney it definitely ain’t.

On a brief negative note, I was disappointed to discover that neither Raymond Briggs’ nor Dianne Jackson’s names appeared anywhere in the programme for the concert. A shocking omission.

I’ve also just finished Tim Hamilton’s comic adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’. I went through a real Bradbury phase for a while (I had a lot of book phases) and Hamilton’s comic version of this classic book does it justice. Fahrenheit451This is a thoughtful work with dark, dramatic undertones about a man whose job it is to burn books because they are considered a danger to the state. It’s about how he starts questioning what he’s doing, and how those doubts put his own life in danger. And those questions about where culture is going are just as relevant now, as they were in the 1950’s.

Like all good sci-fi (and Bradbury has written across many genres), he questioned what kind of future we would end up in, if we continued along our present paths. Hamilton’s stark, brusque style of artwork suits the story really well. It’s a little bit ‘tell, don’t show’ for a comic adaptation, but well worth a read. For a rather more violent, stylized and Matrix-style (but still fun and thought-provoking) take on the story, check out ‘Equilbrium’, starring Christian Bale.

Crash-JG BallardI’m in the middle of reading ‘Crash’ by JG Ballard. Definitely not for younger readers, or anybody with a delicate disposition or a weak stomach . . . or just about anyone of a vaguely uptight nature. But it is great, compelling writing from one of the masters in our field. Made into an eerie but engrossing film by David Cronenburg back in the 90’s, its themes of mankind’s obsession with and bonding with technology and how it affects relationships are, like Bradbury’s, all the more relevant today.

A Very Slippy Christmas

It wasn’t so much a White Christmas as an Ice Christmas. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. As a country, we’re obviously not very used to dealing with serious ice, but what I saw on the 23rd and 24th of Christmas was bordering on farce.Slippery Floor Sign

Circumstances had brought the family and I to Navan for bit of last minute shopping, and what should have been a town hit by a retail stampede became more like ‘March of the Penguins’, with people waddling carefully on ice-paved paths (that’s ‘sidewalks’ to all you folks in the States). We saw a number of people fall, as well as one ambulance picking up a woman with a broken arm, while another woman sat off to the side holding a dressing to a bleeding head wound. Apparently the accident and emergency department were very busy with broken bones over that week. No doubt lawsuits will quickly follow.

Even so, I couldn’t resist launching into a slide along a path from time to time.

All across the country, councils discovered they had not stocked enough grit to even cover the main roads, No Grit on Roadsso driving became very interesting, as thin layers of ice reduced our roads to toboggan runs. It’s good to know that now that they’re broke, the last of the councils’ money will be used paying off all the people who are likely to sue for falling on their asses, or spinning their cars off icy tarmac. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who have come here from countries where they have real cold and they see us unable to deal with a cold snap.

I spent a couple of weeks in Poland years ago. While walking up in the mountains, I asked my friend what the tall poles were for along the side of the path. She told me they were to make sure people could follow the path when it snowed. Those poles were more than fifteen feet high. And yet a coating of ice brings our country to a halt.

In Canada, they have to plug their cars into the power grid to stop them from freezing. They build some of their city streets underground. They have to put snow tyres on their cars, and sometimes still need to put chains on their tyres. In Sweden, houses are made from wood. They’re cheaper to build, stay warmer in freezing winters and cooler in the summers. In Ireland, we’re still getting our heads around the idea that houses need to be insulated. A couple of inches of snow and we’re declaring the onset of the apocalypse.

Slippery Road SignThinking the worst of the ice was over yesterday, my wife and I decided to take the kids for a walk in the woods near Kingscourt. But we were driving on back roads most of the way, and after a while we had to turn back. It was just too dangerous, and we were too likely to slide off into a ditch, hit another car, or get stuck in the middle of nowhere. I quite like the challenge of driving on ice, but sliding down a steep polished slope in a ton and a half of metal, looking at the tight turn at the bottom is enough to make a fella rethink his priorities.

On the plus side, we went go-carting over the Christmas too. The cold hard tyres on the chilly floor made for some serious lack of traction. It was great craic to slide the carts around those hairpin bends, and I was reminded that, despite all the problems caused by the cold – the relatively minor ones we’re crap at dealing with in Ireland (you know, as if we’ve never seen them before) – at least the kids can have some fun out there . . . and it’s a change from the year of rain we’ve had. And frankly, it’s a delight to see any of kind of snow at Christmas – even if it is nothing but a light sprinkling atop the type of ice that requires the declaration of a national emergency.

Hope you all had a great Christmas. Happy New Year!